Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS
Location: South Boston, Massachusetts
Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS
Location: South Boston, Massachusetts
Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS
Location: Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum; Boston, Massachusetts
I’ve used a lot of different metropolitan transit systems in cities I’ve either visited or lived in. From Istanbul to Berlin to Washington, DC, it’s fascinating to see how different cultures and countries treat their metro systems. Some cities emphasize the ability to eat and drink at established vendors right next to the platform, while others emphasize the ability to know exactly when the next train will be arriving with real-time updates. In a way, these metro systems are a microcosm of a country’s culture. Unbeknownst to most travelers, you can learn a lot about a city and a country as a whole based on how they approach their public transportation. Each metro system I’ve used has had their own kind of flair to them whether it’s the London Underground’s cleanliness, New York Subway’s 24-hour service, and Istanbul’s kind food merchants.
Out of all the metro systems I’ve rode on, there are currently two in the world that stand out to me in their approach to customer service. While most systems rarely have attendants to help people enter or leave the train, the two cities that are the exception to this rule are Boston and Medellin. These two transit systems actually have attendants working on behalf of the transportation authority to help passengers to use the metro effectively but with different approaches. For example, the way Boston does its’ customer service would be more hands-off while in Medellin it is much more hands on.
This difference in culture may play into the fact that the Boston T system has been in operation since 1897 and the locals are pretty adept at navigating the transit system considering its’ more than a century old. When it comes to Medellin, the metro system there began in 1995, which is a little over twenty years old. Medellin currently has the only urban train network in Colombia. Still though, you could draw the conclusion that the way the customer service of these two transit systems functions is reflective of the overall culture. In the U.S., we tend to be more individualistic especially when it comes to our urban transportation. When I lived in Medellin, I was enamored with how collective the metro system was when compared to where I’m currently living. In Boston, it’s much more about every man or woman for himself or herself as they try to navigate the system regardless of whether you’re a long-time local or a first-time visitor.
For Medellin, the aspect of their metro system that stood out most to me was the number of attendants who would help riders enter the train platform, instruct users on how to board and exit the trains, and how to refill and use their metro cards. Instead of just one or two attendants there on behalf of the transportation authority, there were usually up to a dozen workers assisting customers at each station. It was really nice for me to see the attention to detail that the metro system had in terms of assisting passengers to use the system effectively. This approach was crucial especially during a busy rush hour when there would be thousands of passengers wanting to enter and exit the train station.
Having a dedicated group of workers on hand to help smooth things over and make sure passengers were respecting each other and the transit system was a really impressive thing to witness. It doesn’t hurt that the entire Medellin metro system is well kept and has no littering, little rats running around etc. at any of its’ dozens of train stations. Compared to other cities, Medellin does a great job with its’ communal approach to the metro system. One of the catchphrases of their advertising is to ‘Vive La Cultura de Metro’, which basically translates to living the metro culture by respecting others and keeping the system clean.
Other cities could benefit from replicating the effective customer service, the emphasis on cleanliness, and the easy access to information that the Medellin Metro provides. Like any other transit system in a major city, it still does get quite congested during rush hour, and it can be hard to get on the train during peak hours due to lack of trains available. I know this from my own past experiences of having to fight to get on the train at 6 AM some mornings when I was a teacher there.
When it comes to the Boston T system, it’s the oldest in the United States and doesn’t take much time to get acclimated to. However, compared to the New York or Washington, DC transit systems, there is some customer service and assistance given. However, when you compare Boston to Medellin in this regard, it’s really no contest. While there are usually one or two attendants from the transit authority present, they don’t really actively help passengers. Sometimes, you can see a transit worker more interested in a smartphone game than to see if anyone needs help or has a question. Instead of being on the train platform to help riders get on and get off the train without issue, they usually just stand by the entrance to the station making sure everybody pays their fare.
Coming from where I was living in Medellin before I moved to Boston, this was a bit of a culture shock to me. It’s nice to have one or two more customer service attendants around to ask questions but I wish there were more attendants on the platform handling crowd control and enforcing the unwritten rules of getting on or leaving the train especially during rush hour. Also, compared to the dozen workers at any train station platform in Medellin, a city like Boston should have a few more people helping out compared to one or two workers per station.
Perhaps this cultural contrast is due to the fact that metro systems in the United States are much more individualistic in nature and the fact that public transit has been part of cities’ makeup for decades especially in the Northeast. I’m guessing that the majority of Bostonians would prefer to be left alone during the morning and evening commute rather than have hands-on help from transit service officials especially at a station platform. However, it might make everyone’s day a bit better and smoother if there were workers actively helping to assist people to refill their transit cards, making sure the rush hour commute goes smoothly, and aiding travelers to the city with directions.
When you travel to different countries, it is tempting to compare and contrast approaches to daily life. In any city, the transit system is an extension of the culture and I find it interesting to see the similarities and differences between countries in how they run their metro systems. It’s good to see how other cities and other countries do things because you’re able to see within your own culture what could be better or more improved. However, what may suit your own tastes may not suit others as much, even your own countrymen.
Train systems like whole cultures tend to be more individualistic or communal. What one city may lack in efficiency, they can make up for it in customer service. I believe it’s best to shoot for improvement in all areas to create a better travel experience. Having the trains run on time, being treated fairly by attendants, and enjoying clean, safe rides are keys for any metro system to achieve. Hopefully as more and more people travel and see the world, we can better see what ways we can improve our own cities and countries by seeing how others do it themselves.
There’s a famous story from the Book of Genesis in the Bible that is known as the ‘Tower of Babel.’ It’s a mythic story about how human beings were once speaking the same language around the world and were able to communicate seamlessly enough where they were able to build a magnificent tower to reach the heavens. Humanity is united and in peace with each other given that they share the same language, culture, and geographical location.
After the ‘great flood’ washed away and receded, humanity wanted to build the tower of Babel in order to reach God and the heavens. In the story, God is befuddled by this show of hubris and ego that has united humanity together in building this tower to reach his presence, and decides to make humanity speak different languages, and separates people into different tribes located in different places around the world. The confusion of languages has a major impact on humanity causing a breakdown in communication, and leading to the future certainties of conflict, violence, and overall suffering.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has created a beautiful film named after this allegorical Biblical event titled, Babel (2006), which was released over a decade ago, and was a winner of Best Original Score at the Oscars as well as six other Academy Award nominations. The film was released to critical acclaim and has garnered a lot of recognition for its’ themes of globalization, cultural and language miscommunication, and the powerlessness of people to control critical events that happen in their lives.
‘Babel’ features an ensemble cast of actors from around the world, which include Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yashuko, and Adriana Barraza. ‘Babel’ is an intriguing film in that the characters and situations in the film take place in three different parts of the world but are interrelated with each other. The sequences of events that occur are out of order but are shown to connect with each other as the film goes on. As for the countries where the film is set, they include Morocco, Japan, Mexico, and the United States. A lot of credit must be given to Mr. Inarritu for weaving these three storylines together without making it too hard to follow or too farcical to be believed. The aspects that make this film unique are the interweaving storylines, the excellent acting, and the themes and questions that ‘Babel’ poses to its’ audience.
The stories that make up ‘Babel’ show how unrelated and seemingly random events at the time can end up turning people’s lives upside down. The overall plot of ‘Babel’ starts out with a Japanese businessman giving a rifle to his hunting companion / tour guide in Morocco as an innocuous gift. This event seems harmless as a moment between two men of different countries and cultures sharing a gift but which causes different events of the movie to unfold over three different continents.
The hunting rifle that makes its’ way to Morocco, is eventually sold by Hassan Ibrahim, who receives the rifle from his old Japanese hunting partner and the rifle ends up in the hands of a goat-herder named Abdullah. Perhaps not using the best judgment as a grandfather should but not seeing a problem with it, Abdullah gives over the hunting rifle to his two sons, Yussef and Ahmed, who want to use it to ward off jackals from killing the goats in their flock.
The boys who are only teenagers and are not skilled with weapons end up practicing the range of the rifle and end up practicing the firing of the rifle on rocks, a moving car, and then the bus. The two boys do not really know the danger that they’re playing with and they don’t know who is on the bus they’re firing the rifle at. The Western tourists who are travelling through Morocco are also unaware as to what is about to happen and are trying to enjoy their trip to a foreign country. Susan, played by Cate Blanchett, is an American woman sleeping on that bus filled with Western tourists and is trying to get some rest when she is shot in the neck accidentally by one of the Moroccan boys with the hunting rifle.
Her husband, Richard, played by Brad Pitt, is caught unaware of what happens to his wife, Susan, but quickly catches up to the reality that his wife is severely wounded in a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language, and he doesn’t have control of the situation. After losing their third child recently to the SIDS disease, Richard and Susan’s marriage is on the rocks and they took the trip to Morocco to get the spark back in their love life. In some scenes of the film, they seem angry, confused, and emotionally distraught after the tragic death of their infant child.
While Richard and Susan are on vacation in Morocco as a means to save their marriage, their two children are in the care of their long-term nanny who is originally from Mexico. Amelia (played by Adriana Barraza) is put into a difficult situation after Susan’s injured state becomes known. She is an undocumented person working in the United States illegally but she has been a nanny and housekeeper for Richard and Susan for many years. She treats their children like her own son and daughter after being a personal caretaker for them. It is made clear to the audience that Adriana has been in the U.S. for over a decade and a half and she has close ties to the American family.
During the film, Adriana is put into a very difficult situation, as she has to go back to Mexico for her son’s wedding but is unable to leave Richard and Susan’s children by themselves at the house in California. Because Richard can’t leave Susan’s bedside, they are delayed in their arrival back to San Diego. Against Richard’s wishes, Adriana decides to take their children with her to Mexico for the evening to enjoy the wedding of her son. Everything is fine for Adriana and the children at the wedding until her nephew, Santiago, decides to drink heavily during the celebration. He is shown to be intoxicated before driving on the way back to U.S.-Mexico border with Adriana and the children causing a number of unfortunate events that upends the lives of all those who are involved in his serious mistake.
The last part of the storyline takes place in Japan and focuses mainly on a teenage girl named Chieko Wataya (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Chieko is deaf and is unable to hear the outside world. On top of that, her mother recently committed suicide, which Chieko became the first witness to leaving her traumatized and inconsolable. She struggles in her attempts to relate to people anymore and is frustrated with boys her age. It is implied that her father and Chieko don’t have the best relationship with each other and haven’t discussed the traumatic event of her mother’s suicide.
During this storyline, it becomes clear that Chieko is confused, lonely, and looking to receive love from a father-like figure since her own father has been so absent in her life. Without spoiling the ending of this storyline, it is also revealed that Chieko’s father is the one to originally give the hunting rifle to the Moroccan man, Hassan Ibrahim, who he met on his trip there. The police eventually question Chieko’s father about why he sold his rifle to Hassan, and how Susan’s wounded state has become a major political point of contention between the U.S. and Moroccan governments.
Overall, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu does an excellent job of bringing these four storylines over three continents to life, and is able to tie them together seamlessly. ‘Babel’ is a story of human beings living their lives in their own ways within their own cultures but who get caught up in external events beyond their control. Inarritu is able to capture how interconnected our world is today in the early stages of the 21st century whether we would like to be aware of it or not. Seemingly unrelated events to each other are able to cause powerful effects that can change people’s lives when they least expect them.
A Japanese man goes on a hunting trip in Morocco, enjoys his Moroccan hunter’s company, and gives him a gift. That Moroccan man sells the rifle to a local goat-herder who lets his two sons practice with the weapon, and they fire the gun consecutively without knowing the damage it can do. The boys, not trying to do harm intentionally, end up shooting accurately at a bus that happens to be filled with Western tourists. An American woman who is catching some sleep catches a stray bullet and starts to bleed to death. She has to seek help from the local Moroccans in the village, and her wounded status causes a political feud between the U.S. – Moroccan governments over whether or not the act was ‘terrorism.’
While she’s recovering from her wounds, her housekeeper half a world away takes her children to Mexico to see her son get married at a wedding. Her nephew uses poor judgment on the drive back to the U.S. from Mexico and makes a fateful decision that changes Adriana and the children’s lives. ‘Babel’ was one of the first movies of the 21st century to really capture the phenomenon of globalization, and how actions that happen half a world away can affect other people’s lives directly. In this movie, we see how people try to do their best as people do, and often times don’t mean to do harm to others intentionally.
Sometimes, people can get caught up in making decisions that they think are good at the time but end up having the opposite effect. ‘Babel’ is not a simple black and white film with truly good or truly evil people. This is a film that understands that there are various shades of grey to life, and that it is difficult to control everything that happens to us and the people in our lives.
Overall, ‘Babel’ is an emotionally charged film that reminds us how people, things, and events can be misinterpreted. When you as an individual come from different cultural and language backgrounds, there are things that are likely to be lost in translation with another person of a different background. Unfortunately, miscommunication is apart of life, and problems are going to occur when people are unable to understand and connect with each other even if they do speak the same language with each other.
As the Biblical story goes, humanity ended up being divided by different languages after trying to be unified in their desire to build up a singular tower to the heavens. We are said to have been punished for our hubris and ego, which caused us to be separated from each other as we were spread out intentionally across the globe.
The audience is left to wonder at the end of ‘Babel’ if there is a truly happy or sad ending to take note of. The plain truth of the ending to me is that ‘Babel’ purposely shows all the elements of the human experience from Chieko’s joy at going to a rave party with her friends to Adriana’s pure despair at losing Richard and Susan’s children in the Mexican desert.
‘Babel’ shows us that life has its’ inevitable ups and downs, and that we can only control so much about our own lives, and many things are often out of our control yet still happen to affect us deeply regardless. Still, this brilliant film captures the resilience of its’ characters who try to make amends for their mistakes, and want to become better as they figure out the complexities and difficulties that make up life. I highly recommend ‘Babel’ to others and hope that it will get the recognition it deserves for years to come.
Why are traditions important? Why do we continue to pass down certain rituals, celebrations, customs, etc. from generation to generation? This is not a simple question to answer but I’d like to discuss my reasoning as to why traditions are important and why they should stick around in this article. In this day and age, there seems to be a movement against traditions and a counter-movement to think only about the present and what’s to come in the future.
I think that this view on traditions is shortsighted and inconsistent with human nature. While not all traditions are sustainable, useful, conscientious, or inclusive, there are numerous reasons as to why traditions should stick around, and why people should embrace traditions as being apart of how they live their lives. While people love to look forward into the future, it’s important to heed the customs and the ways of the past.
By observing traditions and celebrating them at times, we connect ourselves to past generations and rekindle the flame of days gone by. This is especially pertinent when it comes to the traditions instilled within us by our families and our communities. If we choose not to uphold those traditions instilled in us by past generations of family and friends, then we are doomed to lose traditions and the value that they held in our hearts and in our minds.
Each person must decide how much to incorporate the traditions of the forefathers into their lives and to what degree. However, to completely disavow of those traditions that lift the human spirit and are positive, and rewarding is to disregard one’s ancestry and upbringing in a sense. Not all traditions should make it from one generation to another but if there are traditions that are meaningful to you, and connect you to the past in a good manner, then those traditions should be continued and passed on to the next generation if that is the road you wish to take.
Having a tradition or traditions also helps you to create memories whether its’ with acquaintance, friends, or family. The memories around traditions are likely to be good ones and you’ll look back on them one day thinking about how special it was to celebrate or observe that tradition with the people you most care about in the world. While the tradition may only take an hour, a day, or a week, the memories of it will stay with you for a lifetime.
Also, it’s important to remember that traditions only come around every now and then whether it’s once a year or sometimes less than that so it gives you something to look forward to. Traditions give people a chance to relax, to enjoy, to reflect, and to be at ease in their lives surrounded by people who feel the same way. While the planning and the execution of traditions can be stressful and filled with anxiety, the payoff is worth it in the fact that you’re carrying on what’s been done for years, decades, or centuries beforehand, and that fact is something to really be proud of. Good and worthwhile traditions will likely lead you and others to count down the weeks and days until you can observe, celebrate, and reflect upon the special occasion.
It can be very difficult to get family and friends together under the same roof and near impossible especially if you live in different states or in different countries. Traditions give families an excuse to get together, laugh, talk, eat good food, and enjoy time together. Once your family starts a shared tradition together, it can be hard to let go of it. When traditions are observed, everybody has a role to play so it gives a chance for family members to connect with each other by having a personal stake in making sure that the tradition is observed in the correct manner. The ability to bring families together is a beautiful thing in life and sometimes it is only possible through the observance of a shared tradition. It can be difficult for family members to agree on everything but it’s likely that the thing they’ll all have in common is a desire to keep the tradition going, and make it a successful one.
Having a sense of identity is another reason why traditions are powerful. By connecting people to ideals, values, and beliefs, greater than themselves, your identity can truly feel whole. Being able to belong to a certain group, or a certain place can be quite healthy for most people, and to celebrate a healthy tradition as a group can really help to create a good sense of identity within an individual. It can be easy to lose your sense of identity nowadays, but by tying your identity to a set of values and ideals related to a group or your family through different traditions can help you feel like a whole person.
In a world where the present and the future take precedence, traditions can connect us deeply to those who came before us and to the past itself. Traditions from the past are important to preserve and uphold, and it’s a way to connect generations to each other. For myself, my traditions involve thinking about those who came before me and the sacrifices and struggles they went through in their own lives. Traditions are always passed down from generation to generation so that others and I in my family could celebrate and observe the traditions that are rich in history, religion and culture. If traditions are not followed and maintained in the current generation, then they are doomed to die out before being passed on to the next generation. If you or other family members refuse to pass on traditions to a member of the next generation, they will go extinct one way or another.
Finally, not all traditions are worth keeping or observing. Certain traditions can be harmful and carry a heavy height that people should not be forced to burden themselves with. Not every tradition created by humans is worthwhile, fair, or just. You don’t need to follow traditions if they don’t align with your moral conscience. Traditions can be good or bad, and they reflect upon our human nature.
The beauty of traditions is that you are given the choice, which traditions you would like to uphold to preserve and pass on to other people. If a tradition is aligned with the core values, beliefs that you have as an individual, then you should feel at ease with continuing it into the future. However, you should not seek to force your traditions on other people, and you should not preach about the superiority of your traditions when compared to the traditions of others. When it comes to traditions, use your best judgment and figure out which ones would be best to observe and celebrate with your family and friends.
Our ties to the past whether its’ through our ancestors, our family history, or our understanding of the world as it once was, is tied to our traditions. If you decide to forgo all traditions, then you are doomed to forget the past. Having a connection to the past through our traditions is a powerful thing and being able to celebrate them in a healthy manner should be encouraged. The memories we make with family and friends, the identity we gain from them, and the values and beliefs we pass on to the next generation make traditions a beautiful part of our existence on this planet. Whether its’ sitting down to a yearly Thanksgiving dinner, going to church weekly, or marching in a parade to celebrate your heritage and culture, traditions are apart of both who we are now and who we once were.
If you are looking for a mainstay of most living languages, you should look no further than the concept of the ‘Idiom.’ The Idiom is the closest thing that humans have in terms of a universal connector among the diversity inherent in all forms of spoken language. The most important thing to understand about the idiom is that you are not supposed to take them literally but you are still supposed to take them seriously. There’s a deeper, implied meaning beyond any idiom regardless of the language it’s spoken in. This is especially the case in the English language where there are hundreds, if not thousands of idioms that can be used for any matter or circumstance.
Idioms can be extremely diverse in their range and can refer to any amount of unique subjects or topics. Idioms can also be used very locally, regionally, or nationally depending upon the language and the culture it comes from. A dialect, jargon, or accent can also lend to the idioms used by a certain group of people who share common interests and/or beliefs. Idioms can be used in reference to business, politics, science, art, music, and other parts of daily life.
It can be tough to decipher which idioms are the most used in the English language but there are a few of them that stand out in terms of their popularity and their different ways of usage. Most people who speak English are likely to be familiar with these idioms below or have used them themselves.
Meaning: Don’t get ahead of yourself before things are accomplished.
Meaning: You’re bothered or annoyed by something that won’t go away.
Meaning: While not taking this statement literally, you shouldn’t pass judgment on someone or something before you receive all of the facts.
Meaning: Very common, easily found anywhere and everywhere.
Meaning: A secret advantage or a benefit that no one else knows about and is going to be used soon against an opponent or adversary.
Idioms can refer to someone’s actions and the consequences of those actions highlighted in example idioms such as ‘Pay the piper’ and ‘Rub somebody the wrong way.’ Idioms can refer to people in general when you say that they are ‘sick as a dog’ or ‘six feet underground.’ Lastly, colors in English can often become part of idioms themselves such as when you describe somebody as feeling upset or depressed as having ‘the blues.’ You know that the person isn’t actually ‘blue’ in their color but rather they have ‘the blues’, which is referred to as when somebody isn’t feeling well. There is a whole musical genre that is devoted to this kind of mellow music called the ‘Blues.’ ‘Out of the blue’ is another example of a color kind of idiom that refers to something happening when you least expect it to.
It can be very difficult to get the hang of idioms especially if your proficiency level is at a low level. First, you need to be able to conjugate verbs, have a good grasp on the vocabulary by knowing a lot of different words, and then you need to be able to understand the meaning behind the idioms and use them with other native speakers in the right way. The idioms being used depends upon the region, the culture, and the social group you find yourself in. That is why there are such a sheer variety of idioms that can be used in any given situation regardless of the language that the idiom falls under. Idioms cut across language and cultural barriers and can have similar meanings to each other depending upon the situation.
The best way in which to comprehend and start using English idioms is to talk with native speakers who will use them throughout a conversation even if they don’t realize it at times. The more conversations you have with English speakers, the more idioms you will pick up on and remember. They will most likely want to help you out so do not be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand the meaning of the idiom or why it’s being used in a certain sentence.
Before you start using idioms yourself, you want to be absolutely clear that you’re using the idiom within the right context for the right meaning. It can be a bit embarrassing if you tell your American friend who is starring in a Broadway play that you want him to ‘jump the gun’ instead of to ‘break a leg.’ Idioms take time to understand, use, and master but they are an important part of learning any language, including English.
If you have liked what I have written in this ‘English Corner’ post, and you are interested in improving your English language skills whether its’ with speaking, writing, or just boosting your knowledge of grammar, I would be happy to help you reach your language learning goals. Check out Learn English With Ben to book a private lesson with me today!
‘Traffic’ (2000) is one of those films that was way ahead of its’ time when it was first released over a decade and a half ago. It is a film that makes you think deeply hours or even days after you first watch it. ‘Traffic’ should be viewed more than once to really understand all of the nuances and subtleties embedded in its’ individual stories underneath its’ overarching central themes.
When compared to most other movies of the crime drama genre, ‘Traffic’ gained a lot of particular praise for the way its’ director and screenwriter were able to successfully weave multiple plotlines, characters, and settings together that slightly overlap with each other but are seamless enough as to not overburden the viewer with unrealistic connections.
‘Traffic’ is a movie that respects the intelligence of its’ audience and isn’t afraid to tackle the controversial topic of the ‘War on Drugs.’ It’s quite surprising when you think about how this movie was released back in 2000, but is still just as relevant and timely of an issue today as it was back when it was first released to the public. When ‘Traffic’ came out, it gained universal recognition and critical acclaim, and after viewing it for the first time, it’s easy to see why it was so noteworthy.
Steven Soderbergh directed ‘Traffic’, and Stephen Gaghan wrote its screenplay. Mr. Gaghan, who was responsible for another multi-layered film with multiple plotlines in ‘Syriana’ (2005), which also starred an ensemble cast of actors dealing with a different timely issue of oil and geopolitics in the Middle East. Unbeknownst to most people, ‘Traffic’ won numerous awards including for Oscar awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. This ensemble cast of actors for ‘Traffic’ is very impressive and includes star names such as Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta Jones.
At its’ core, ‘Traffic’ focuses on the illegal drug trade going on in both the United States and Mexico. One of the brilliant things about this film is the fact that each character in the movie represents a different perspective on the drug war whether they are a user, enforcer, trafficker, lawyer, or politician. It’s unlikely that a film like ‘Traffic’ would be made today but it’s distinctive editing, multi-use of colors depending on which of the three stories are being highlighted, and the political relevance of its’ themes could keep a lot of viewers away these days.
Its’ importance and timeliness today can’t be overstated as this film doesn’t try to impose a point of view on the audience. ‘Traffic’ would rather cause the individual viewer to ask questions, seek out more knowledge about the issue, and weigh the different opinions expressed by the characters throughout the movie. The three-color grades that are used for the three different stories are probably one of the most interesting things that I’ve ever seen when it comes to film editing. Each story in ‘Traffic’ could be its’ own movie in its’ own right, and the film is lengthier than most in terms of run time at two hours and twenty minutes total.
To briefly highlight the substance of the three stories without spoiling the whole movie, let’s go over each one to introduce the arch of the overall plot to prospective viewers out there. The first story is mainly set in Mexico City and other parts of the country, which highlights the efforts of two Mexican police officers that are trying to do their job as enforcers of the law under difficult circumstances. While trying to bring down local cartels in the easiest way possible, the two officers, one of them, Javier Rodriquez (played by Benicio del Toro) come up against corruption, and crime within their own ranks, which makes their ability as officers to keep their areas safe difficult with money and influence blurring the line between the good guys and bad guys.
Officer Rodriguez (del Toro) wants to do his best to keep his job, but to also hold his fellow policemen and elements of the Mexican army accountable for their actions without compromising his safety. He knows that ending the drug war is futile but he wants to keep his immediate community safe and that of its’ inhabitants. This is especially true if it means that the local kids in his neighborhood can play baseball at night with new stadium lights and not be at risk of joining gangs instead in their free time.
The second storyline in ‘Traffic’ takes place between the nexus of small town Ohio and the capital city of Washington, DC in the United States. A conservative judge, Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas), is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he becomes an unofficial ‘drug czar.’ Mr. Wakefield doesn’t seem to be enthused with the new position he’s been given due to the long hours, lack of support, and political skepticism from the official circles within Washington. He tries to make the most of fighting the ‘war on drugs’ even if he knows deep down that it is truly unwinnable. Because he is away from his family for long periods of time, he is unaware that his daughter in high school has developed a drug problem over the past six months and is struggling with a heroin addiction now.
On top of dealing with being a father and the leader of a national drug control policy effort, he struggles to be a open and forthcoming husband to his wife. Compared to other characters in the film, Wakefield changes the most in his views on the ‘war on drugs’ as the audience can see that his mindset changes when this issue becomes personal and not just professional. With his daughter’s future and life at stake, the ‘war on drugs’ becomes less of an abstract war and more of a battle to save his family from falling apart.
The third and last storyline takes place mostly in southern California in the San Diego area where two DEA agents are conducting an underground investigation. The investigation, led by Agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle), eventually leads to the successful capture and arrest of a top drug dealer, Eduardo Ruiz, who pretends to be a fisherman as his cover.
This arrest is instrumental in helping along the trial of suspected drug lord, Carl Ayala, who is thought to be the leading distributor of illegal drugs for one of the biggest cartels in the world. Ruiz is important to be kept alive and in good shape so that he can testify to the illegal activities of Ayala and his empire, but that is harder for the DEA than they ever imagined. With Ayala’s possible imprisonment and/or cooperation, the DEA agents are hoping to bring down this cartel, once and for all.
However, since Ayala and his wife, Helen (played by Catherine Zeta Jones), have a lot of wealth and influence still, they are able to put a damper on the DEA’s plans with the help of the shady family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (played by Dennis Quaid). DEA Agent Gordon and his partner are unable throughout the film to cope with the long tentacles of the drug cartels, and the amount of money and hit men the Ayala’s are able to use to threaten the safety of the DEA’s witness and the potential success of the prosecution against Ayala. You could imagine that this particular story in the film does not come with a happy ending.
Any of the three unique yet intertwined storylines of ‘Traffic’ could be ripped from newspaper headlines from over the past forty years. Ever since the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’ back in the 1970’s, there has been endless debate about whether there have been any successes or mainly just the upholding of the status quo. ‘Traffic’ doesn’t try to impose a simple yes or no answer to the ‘war on drugs’ question.
Rather, this film intelligently asks its’ audience to weigh the outcomes of these different stories that are affected by the drug trade, and the viewer is supposed to make that decision for themselves. When it comes to special movies like ‘Traffic’, there are no simple black and white solutions. There are many shades of grey in all of these human stories, and it takes deep insight, critical thinking, and analysis in order for slow changes of the status quo to actually occur.
While this is a fictional movie, it is made clear by the film itself that a lot of these characters are based off of actual people who make up all sides of the ‘war on drugs.’ Overall, the one key thing that the ending of this film makes clear to the audience is that there are no winners in the drug war, only losers, and it takes an impactful movie like ‘Traffic’ to make that fact absolutely clear.
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